India: A Delicate Dance

The agenda for President Obama’s trip to India this week will be far weightier than it might appear. Most of his three-day visit will be devoted to ceremonial tourism and talks to business groups. There will be an address to Parliament but barely a morning of face-to-face working sessions with the political leadership. But it’s all a very delicate courtship dance. “It’s going to take time to build a proper relationship with India,” says a senior defense official, asking not to be named when discussing sensitive issues. “There isn’t going to be some overnight conversion.”

Still, there are plenty of pressing matters for the two countries to work on—trade, for one. Recovering slowly and painfully from the economic crisis, America wants freer access to India’s vast and booming markets. “This really is one of the most important emerging economic relationships for the United States,” says Mike Froman, who handles international economic affairs on the National Security Council.

Beyond exports, Obama is pushing to rebuild U.S. alliances across Asia, particularly in response to China’s rise. That will be a major theme of the entire 10-day swing through India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. The aim isn’t Cold War containment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear in Hanoi last month. But Washington is deeply concerned about China’s recent willingness to throw its weight around.

How willing might India be to join the American effort? One leading indicator will be where India places an impending $11 billion order for new combat aircraft. U.S. defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin are hoping for a deal, but India has yet to show its hand while looking at European, or even Russian, jets. Administration officials don’t expect a clear-cut victory this week, though one says they’re likely to get “a door prize”: a $3.5 billion order for military transport aircraft.

On other matters of consequence—like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Iran—India has been less than enthusiastic. An Indian diplomat, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly, puts his country’s attitude in blunt terms: “India is not some great fish to be reeled in.”